King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The Saints win a game and are anointed inspirational heroes in the feel-good story of the weekend. My, that was an easy template to follow.

Published September 12, 2005 7:00PM (EDT)

Call me a killjoy, a cynic. I want to be wrong. I hope I'm wrong about this.

But I just can't help feeling suspicious about the big story coming out of the first Sunday of the NFL season, the New Orleans Saints' last-minute victory over the Carolina Panthers providing hope, uplift and inspiration to their fans in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana.

I feel like it's too easy, too reflexive a move on the part of the media. We love to tell feel-good stories in dark times. They make us feel better, make our readers and viewers and listeners feel better. I think we reach for them sometimes.

I don't mean to diminish any hope, uplift and inspiration the Saints really did provide to real people who really need it. I know that happens.

I don't think reporters made up stories about cops huddled around a patrol-car radio, reveling in the near normalcy of listening to the game. I don't believe Saints players were lying when they said people in the Astrodome or other shelters they visited told them they had to go out and win some games to give the people hope.

But I don't think that's all that happens.

What I think is that we in the media like to use templates when we can, and the template for this weekend was "sports victory provides inspiration." It was applied to LSU's win over Arizona State Saturday night too.

Inspiring the Saints' victory was, and let's take a second to praise them for overcoming incredible difficulties and pressure to stay focused and win in a way the Saints aren't known for doing in the best of times.

But I get a little leery when the scenes the TV networks show of people watching the game at shelters are suspiciously tight shots of a few guys sitting around a single table, and their reaction to the game-winning field goal looks more like weary, semi-interested applause than unfettered, thank you for letting me forget joy.

I'm suspicious because, as much as I love sports, as much, yes, comfort as I take in them sometimes, if my house and city were destroyed and I'd just lived through two weeks of death and terror, my reaction to the home 11 winning or losing would, I think, be that I couldn't care less.

Even a winning streak would leave me cold. Great, I'd think, my team finally puts together a decent season and I can't even enjoy it. Maybe I'm the only person in the world who thinks this way. I'm just saying I suspect I'm not, and that those who feel this way weren't going to get their stories told on Sunday because it didn't fit the narrative.

I'm saying this from a place far removed from Katrina's path, but I have some experience in this area. I lived through the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in Northern California, the one that interrupted the World Series. That was, of course, a fender bender compared with Hurricane Katrina, and I was relatively unscathed.

But I lost interest in sports and didn't get it back for a while. That World Series was a once-in-a-lifetime matchup of the two Bay Area teams, and the one I was rooting for ended up winning. I didn't even watch. I didn't even read about it. I didn't care. My apartment was a few miles from the Oakland A's home field. I wasn't inspired.

The sports-as-inspiration theme got a workout when the New York Yankees went to the World Series the month after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, but that was a little different. The vast majority of Yankees fans didn't lose their homes or anyone dear to them in the attacks. The sadness at the time was overwhelming, but most of the people rooting for the Yankees were doing it from the same couches and barstools they'd been doing it from on Sept. 10, and with the same people.

The stories about the Saints have been respectful. There's always the proper qualification -- "of course, in the scheme of things, it means nothing, but ..." -- and the Saints' players and coaches have been nothing short of excellent in the way they've deflected praise and kept the focus on the victims.

In fact, there's nothing wrong with a feel-good story. But I worry that the people who feel the way I did in 1989, who weren't inspired by the Saints' win and have bigger things to worry about, thank you very much, than drawing hope from a football game, couldn't have gotten near a TV camera or a reporter's notebook Sunday with a gun.

I worry that these feel-good stories are the first step on the road to complacency, to the rest of us forgetting about Hurricane Katrina, moving on to the next story -- say, what's up with that missing teenager in Aruba, anyway?

I don't mean that as a joke. I think the big media story around Hurricane Katrina is that the dire warnings about the dangers of flooding and disaster in New Orleans if it ever took a direct hit from a big enough storm weren't bigger news.

The levee system was waiting to fail, and that information was known. The New Orleans Times-Picayune famously predicted the destruction that Katrina has wrought back in 2002. Famously, I mean, now. The story didn't get a lot of national play at the time. I don't remember hearing about it.

We're all pretty smug in faulting the government for ignoring the warnings and letting the situation deteriorate over the years, but have we the people been holding officials' feet to the fire all that time? No. We might have if we the media had made a bigger deal about it.

Forgive me for using "we" throughout this column to mean both the media and its audience, but I'm in both groups.

And why didn't we in the media make a bigger deal about the impending disaster in New Orleans?

Because we the people don't want to hear that depressing stuff. We want little made-for-TV mysteries like Natalee Holloway and JonBenet Ramsey and a hundred others, stories that let us revel in our fear and empathy and grief, but vicariously. Give us a feel-good story at the end of the day and it's a perfect cocktail. We're ready for bed.

We don't want to hear about infrastructure, preparedness, details of budget decisions. What's the next disaster that's already in process that we're all ignoring because it's just too wonky and complicated and dull?

And why aren't we in the media insisting on telling these stories, even though they might cost us some in sales or ratings or page views? I have a healthy respect for the bottom line, but is that all we serve?

I don't know. Let's ask someone who lost their kids in the flood.

Good for the Saints for their win, and good luck to them for 15 more. Good for anyone who really did draw inspiration and hope from them Sunday. Here's hoping there's a whole lot more where that came from and there are a whole lot more of you than I suspect there are.

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